AsianScientist (Jul. 1, 2020) -Here’s a riddle for you: What’s lighter than a feather but stronger than steel?
If you guessed carbon nanotubes—tiny hollow tubes made up of carbon atoms—then you’re right. Though carbon nanotubes can only be seen under an electron microscope, they’re one of the strongest materials on earth. Accordingly, carbon nanotubes have historically been used as an additive to other materials. In the 17th century, for instance, they were used to forge the legendary Damascus swords while today, they’re used to manufacture lightweight, damage-resistant aircraft parts.
The development of this wonder material can be partially attributed to Assistant Professor Akira Koshio of Mie University. Similar to other great scientific discoveries like penicillin, carbon nanotubes were discovered by accident. While examining various carbon materials under an electron microscope in 1991, nanotechnology pioneer Professor Sumio Iijima of Meijo University serendipitously stumbled upon peculiar elongated objects that turned out to be multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Still, it took years for Iijima, along with his Meijo University colleague Professor Masako Yudasaka and Koshio, to find a safer and more efficient way to produce nanotubes.
For their groundbreaking discovery of carbon nanotubes and their development of a sustainable production process, the three were recognized with the European Inventor Award in 2015. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Koshio gives us an update on his research and shares his thoughts on the opportunities and challenges of using carbon nanotubes.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
We are developing methods to produce nanomaterials including nanotubes, nanowires, nanoparticles, nanoribbons and nanosheets, evaluate their structures and properties and apply them as novel materials. Recently, we have also been conducting research on metal-encapsulated carbon nanotubes and carbon nanoparticles that can be formed through the arc discharge method, as well as silicon nanowires and nanoribbons that can be formed by the gas phase reaction or hydrothermal method.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
One thing I am proud to have achieved is developing a high-frequency plasma method that can produce carbon nanotubes without using a metal catalyst. By directly vaporizing solid carbon rods with high-temperature plasma, we are able to create high-purity carbon nanotubes that do not contain metals that harm the human body and contaminate materials. This metal-free method means that carbon nanotubes can also be used in the field of biomedicine.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
Nanostructures such as nanotubes, nanowires, nanoparticles, nanoribbons and nanosheets can be controlled by changing their production conditions. However, they are produced in different sizes, and various nanostructures often form simultaneously. It is extremely difficult to get just a single structure and size. The goal is to form only the nanostructures you want and freely form them where you want. In order to realize this in the next ten years, it is necessary to develop technology not only for nanostructure formation, but also analysis and manipulation.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
When I was an undergraduate student, reading a special article about small spherical carbon particles known as fullerenes in a Japanese magazine called Chemistry motivated me to move into my current research field. For the first time, I learned that carbon atoms could form molecules like a soccer ball; I was fascinated by the geometrically beautiful nanostructured world.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
When producing carbon nanotubes by the arc discharge method, I discovered certain properties related to light absorption. It was an unexpected phenomenon, so I researched it for a while, but gradually shifted to another research theme without elucidating it. A few months later, another group published a paper in Nature on the same phenomenon of light absorption. I felt very disappointed, but at the same time, I realized that I should study more deeply and speedily.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
At regional universities in Japan, the decrease in the number of faculty and university budgets is a serious problem. Having fewer faculty increases the workload, therefore reducing research time. Because of the reduction in university budgets, researchers cannot continue their research without competitively obtaining external funding. This may have some merits, but it may be difficult to conduct research in new areas or exploratory research that finds new themes. I am not sure how this challenge can be solved.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I might have been a technician repairing home appliances, electrical equipment and machinery. I actually made and repaired most of the experimental equipment used in our research.
- What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?
I relax by exercising outdoors, doing activities such as cycling, mountain climbing and running during holidays. Someday, I would like to visit other Asian countries and go biking and trekking.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
The use of nanomaterials can reduce the size of electronic devices. It is also promising as a material for high-capacity secondary battery electrodes and high-efficiency solar panels. I believe that our research can contribute to energy conservation around the world.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
I think that research is like climbing a mountain without a summit. However, when you climb, you will see more and more landscapes that you have not seen before, and a new world will spread before your eyes. Enjoy ‘mountain climbing’ and discovering new scenery through your research!
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Akira Koshio.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.